Africa Needs To Invest In Women Pursuing STEM Careers
The Helium Team
Africa is the most genetically and culturally diverse continent in the world—with most of its potential still largely untapped. However, it is ravaged by corruption, poverty, political unrest, and a weak public health system. In addition to these problems, Africa is almost dependent on other continents for aid.
STEM could be exactly what Africa needs to solve its myriad of problems. STEM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. It includes a wide range of careers including medicine, physics, microbiology, laboratory science, physiotherapy, and data science. The benefits of STEM are not limited to healthcare improvement, it can also drive the economy forward. An example is the role of America’s National Institute of Health (NIH) in generating an economic output of $68.8 million in its country. Here in Africa, STEM is fast gaining ground for its pivotal role in the economy. Moreso, investors are increasing their participation in the continent. In 2021 alone, tech start-ups accumulated over $2 billion in investment funds—and they are currently improving lives across various sectors.
Despite these recent developments, women are still amongst the most marginalized groups in society. Africa has been reported to have the highest levels of gender discrimination towards women. Despite having a high number of working women, more than 60% of these women earn less than their male counterparts. Sadly, women in STEM have the same narrative. They make up a low percentage of the total population of individuals in STEM. This may be due to a false stereotype that women are unable to handle the rigors of the job. Several organizations can not accommodate the most natural biological changes in a woman’s body like menstruation, or childbirth.
Furthermore, when women surmount these roadblocks—to find their places in their specific STEM fields—they are often subject to gender bias in the workplace. Tito Ovia, Co-founder and Head of Growth at Helium Health shares how she has been called ‘aggressive, greedy, and stubborn’ during business meetings. However, women have more to offer in terms of development and providing sustainable solutions to the continent’s problems.
Considering the avalanche of investment coming into the continent, there is no time like the present to invest in empowering women in STEM.
Invest In Women’s Education In STEM
A survey shows girls still have low access to education. The COVID-19 pandemic may increase the school drop-out rate for girls to 59%. Furthermore, a major cause of high school dropout for girls is teenage pregnancy. Several families quickly marry off their pregnant daughters or stop their schooling altogether. Nevertheless, encouraging pregnant teenage girls to continue their education is another way to invest in women. There should be programs that help to incorporate these girls back into their schools.
Moreso, Africa needs to invest in initiatives and organizations focused on women’s education. Creating scholarships and grants can help girls in STEM to complete their education—since some of their families may not be able to afford it or might pick educating the males over the females. There are also several initiatives, organizations, and Edtechs including Visiola foundation and She Code Africa which have taught tech skills to over 10,000 girls and women.
Support Female-Led Startups And Businesses.
Despite the rain of investments in Africa in 2021, less than 21% of start-ups that received funding had at least one female founding member. This begs an important question: Are women not applying for investments or are there very few female-led tech start-ups?
Whichever the case, more accelerator programs should be targeted at women only. This is because several women may feel less confident if competing with males—a mindset imprinted by African society. Furthermore, the fear of sexual harassment and advances from men discourage females from pitching their science and technological innovations. This fear can only be dispelled when there are stricter laws and punishments for such acts.
Most importantly, investors have to be intentional about supporting female-led businesses. When the African woman is given the space to thrive without prejudice or politics, she becomes pivotal to pushing the continent’s economy forward.
Create Better Work Policies For Women.
STEM careers can be intensive. This is a fundamental truth. Several organizations often refrain from hiring women in these sectors because they can not afford to give leave days to accommodate their ‘biological changes’. For example, several organizations only give 12 weeks of paid maternity leave to working mothers rather than 6 months of paid maternity leave. This hardly affords working mothers enough time with their babies. To fully incorporate women into the workplace, employers have to create female-friendly policies. Several alternatives can be explored for organizations that can not afford a six-month paid maternity leave. Examples include remote work, work from home, and running a hybrid system (office and remote work).
Even for women who are physicians, telemedicine is fast gaining ground in Africa. For those who are breastfeeding, this can reduce the rigors of combining child care with work. More so, it also saves organizations time and money since telemedicine removes the waiting time for patients at hospitals. To achieve inclusivity for women, there should be equal treatment and pay for both males and females. Moreover, promotion should be offered based on merit. This will solve the problem of women being marginalized because they are thought incapable of leadership.
Train and Allow More Women In Leadership.
Leadership is perhaps the most important role that women rarely occupy on the continent. Although women are beginning to sit in executive offices and become president—as in the case of the Liberian former president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—the upper rungs of most STEM organizations are dominated by men.
This could be because women are thought to be too emotional to have the hardness of leadership. Sadly, this farce has kept several women from much-needed and well-deserved promotions. Besides, women’s emotional nature allows them to be better at empathy and communication—two key skills of a leader. Countries like Denmark, New Zealand, and Finland which currently have female leaders are far more stable economically and politically. Allowing more women to take the helm of leadership, particularly in STEM is what the continent needs.
We are Africa, and Africa is us. By supporting at least one woman, we are moving Africa forward.